For a published college rankling to be useful during application season, it has to emphasize factors that matter to applicants. For example, if a ranking places significant weight (e.g. more than 25%) on the percentage of instructors who has a Ph.D., it is natural to ask if having a doctorate makes someone a better instructor. Alumni donations is another factor that may seem less consequential at first glance. However, generous donations can allow for more financial aid, better equipment and a greater selection of learning programs.
Because publishers do make their methodology public to some extent, applicants to elite colleges should take the time and examine these disclosures with family to make sure that they are following information sources that will lead to informed decisions.
It is natural to ask if a ranking’s popularity makes it authoritative. The answer is a qualified yes. Because prestige is fundamentally subjective and intangible, the perceived legitimacy of a published ranking is proportional to the size of its readership base. For example, the success of the US News college rankings has made it part of popular culture, believed by many. However, that is not a sentiment shared by some college administrators and faculty. Even so, college administrators who public downplay the importance of the US News rankings privately do pay attention, given that rankings placement affect fundraising and recruitment of high achieving students.
Individual applicants should avoid focusing on too few or too many schools when reviewing rankings. If available, check rankings related to the desired field of study. When it feels confusing or overwhelming, tune out the noise and treat rankings like the higher education equivalent restaurant recommendations.